Nikola Mirotic walked off the United Center floor on opening night feeling mixed emotions. Sure, his 19 points and 9 rebounds had just helped the Bulls defeat the Cavaliers on opening night, but Niko felt like he could have done more defensively to help his teammates. It’s a testament to the dynamic forward’s mind-frame that he’s become cognizant of that fact.
“I think it’s great,” said new Bulls’ coach Fred Hoiberg pregame against the Nets on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. “I think he realizes how important it is he’s out on the floor, and a big part of that is being able to defend his position, so I was really pleased with Niko.”
Mirotic showed stretches of the versatile game he possesses last season – especially in March when he was named Rookie of the Month for the second time, and led the entire NBA with 136 fourth-quarter points – but he’s been putting in the work both before, and after practices, with the Bulls’ coaching staff to become a more efficient outside shooter – something he didn’t do well at all last season, shooting just 31.6% from that range.
So far in the first two games of the season his shot is falling. Mirotic is shooting 7-of-12 from distance, helping to space Hoiberg’s new offense. But it’s more than just about his outside shot. Mirotic has been much more confident early in the season playing the four when required, and utilizing his pump fakes to throw defenders off balance.
“Niko is just a hooper, man. He’s a baller,” said Derrick Rose about what’s impressed him in the first two games. “Whatever you need on the floor he’s gonna do. He’s never the selfish type player – even if he’s not knocking down shots he’s doing things on the floor trying to get his teammates involved in the game, and we need him. We need him to create more with his pump fake and have people close out long to him.”
Given, it’s just a small sample size, but it’s looking like a breakout year for the second-year forward.
Hoiberg inserted Mirotic into the starting lineup at the expense of veteran Joakim Noah, and he hasn’t disappointed since. Hoiberg says that the decision didn’t come lightly either, but a visit to Spain to watch the pair play with the Spanish national team this past summer enabled the Bulls’ coach to see in person the chemistry the duo could employ in the Bulls’ front-court this season.
“We looked at a lot of different things. We looked at some analytics; on numbers; on who played well together last season,” said Hoiberg. “With Pau and Niko playing together and building chemistry, I thought was very good in the off-season – you know, that’s important.”
But it’s not just the efficiency on the offensive end that’s impressed Hoiberg. Through the Bulls’ first two games Mirotic has pulled down 16 defensive boards. According to the coach, that’s a skill that is being underrated.
“Yeah, he is an underrated defensive rebounder,” stated Hoiberg. “He battles. That’s one thing I’ve been really pleased with Niko – he’s battling down there. He’s giving up size mostly, and it’s tough match-ups for him, but they’ve got to guard him down that other end as well, and he’s a very difficult match-up when he’s hitting shots.”
Feature image via: Getty Images